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Expect greater influx of Latinos in NPB

by Wayne Graczyk

Fan Dayan Viera was born in Cuba and currently lives in Miami, Florida. He emailed to say, “As a Cuban, I wonder if Japanese teams will be taking advantage of the new policy change where Cuban players are going to be allowed to play in foreign leagues without needing to defect from Cuba.”

As we head into December, the 12 Japan pro baseball teams are busy compiling their rosters for the 2014 season. They are re-signing players they want to keep, hiring free agents, making trades, welcoming rookie draft choices and reassessing which foreign players are to be retained and what new foreign imports might have the potential for success during their first season here.

The emphasis so far where the foreigners are concerned is on acquiring Latin players, including Cubans, who seem to be coming with more talent and are proving to be more economical where salaries are concerned. Names such as Mendoza, Canizares, Gomez, Cruz and Miranda will add a more distinct Hispanic flavor to Japanese baseball.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, pleased with the performance of Cuban slugger Michel Abreu, the 2013 Pacific League home run king, have signed another Cuban, first baseman Juan Miranda, and Mexican pitcher Luis Mendoza. Also from Cuba, infielder Barbaro Canizares will join the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, and Dominican Mauro Gomez will wear the uniform of the Hanshin Tigers.

Another Mexican, infielder Luis Cruz, will play for the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Claudio Rodriguez, a native of Venezuela but living in Toronto, Canada, runs a Spanish-language website (www.beisboljapones.com) featuring Latin players in Japan. An annual visitor to Japan where he frequently interviews the players, Rodriguez explained why he thinks Japanese clubs signing Spanish-speaking guys is becoming more common.

“There has definitely been an increase of Latin players in NPB since 1996,” said Rodriguez. “Between 1955 and 1995, only 38 Latin players went to NPB but, between 1996 and 2013, that number skyrocketed to 141, an increase of almost 400 percent.

“In 1995, the three Latin players in NPB represented 12.5 percent of the foreign imports in the league. In 2012, that number increased to 28, which represented 43.75 percent of foreign players in Japan.”

Obviously, one reason for this is the raising of the limit of foreign players allowed per each team from two to a maximum of four in the active roster which caused a general expansion in the annual number of imports in Japanese baseball, but Rodriguez cites other factors why the interest in Latin players has picked up.

“The Latin imports turn out to be easier and cheaper to acquire than their American counterparts (or at least it seems so), and they probably adapt better and faster (and complain less) to life in Japan,” he said.

“Former Seibu Lions slugger Orestes Destrade explained it perfectly in an interview, saying, ‘Latin players adapt faster to NPB than American players, because they already made the jump once when they went to play in the U.S. American players are used to playing in their own country, but for a Latin ballplayer to play professional baseball usually means to work and live abroad, so they have an easier time adapting to a foreign environment, because they’re used to do it.’

“Then there is the emergence of Latin players as stars of the game in NPB. Since the arrival of Roberto Petagine in 1999, NPB has seen some very important Latin sluggers in action, such as Alex Cabrera, Alex Ramirez, Jose Fernandez, Jose Ortiz, Fernando Seguignol, Aarom Baldiris, Tony Blanco and now Michel Abreu and Hector Luna,” Rodriguez said.

“The recent boom of Cuban players has to do with the successful season Abreu had this year with Nippon Ham. He just opened the eyes of the scouts, and now they seem to be trying to hire all those hidden treasures still available there.”

Some of the Japanese clubs are still looking to sign imported help for the 2014 season and, no doubt, we will see more Latin players on the Central and Pacific League rosters when Opening Day rolls around come March 28.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com